Current Research in Digital History


Anelise Hanson Shrout

(Re)Humanizing Data
Digitally Navigating the Bellevue Almshouse

from volume 1 (2018), https://doi.org/10.31835/crdh.2018.10

Abstract

Fleeing poverty, disease and violence at home, thousands immigrated to New York City in the 1840s. In an unknown city, with little support, many became destitute. City officials responded by consigning immigrants to the Bellevue Hospital Almshouse. There they were diagnosed as “vagrant,” “destitute” and “recent emigrant” and incarcerated in New York’s nascent public health system. This paper uses computational methods to reconstruct the experiences of incarcerated immigrants. It demonstrates the (often archivally invisible) forces that structured immigrants’ lives. It also argues that, despite the violence they suffered at the hands of New York City, these men and women used the Almshouse to forge communities, demand medical care, and claim social support.

On February 23rd, 1847, three adults and one child stepped off the deck of the ship Fidelia and onto New York City’s docks.1 James Burnes was twenty-eight years old, Eliza-Jane Burnes was twenty-two and Arthur Burnes was twenty. One of the three was likely shepherding Ellen Burnes, who was just three years old.2 All four members of the Burnes family had been born in Ireland. They came to New York because Irish potato crops failed consistently between 1845 and 1847. Government efforts to provide relief proved too little and too late, and the rural Irish began to starve.3 Sickness followed. By 1852 over one million Irish people had died. Over one million more—those who had the physical, material and emotional resources to do so—sailed across the Atlantic. The vast majority of these immigrants, like the Burnes family, disembarked in New York. Many became sick or otherwise required aid. When they did, they were sent to the city’s public Bellevue Almshouse. There, they became the subjects of data collection. Many were diagnosed as “recent emigrants.” Bellevue inmates were then assigned to one of many public health sites across the city, where they remained, often for months.

There is a vast body of literature exploring Irish immigration patterns in aggregate.4 However, the lives and experiences of individual immigrants remain difficult to access.5 This is both because archival references to these men and women are sparse, and because the references that do exist are artifacts of government efforts to control immigrant bodies. This essay explores Irish immigrants’ experience of the complicated and often hostile nascent public health systems in 1840s New York. It focuses on the years before consistent immigration policies and laws clarified the obligations of the city to immigrant newcomers.6 It uses data produced about immigrants by the Bellevue Almshouse to argue that these spaces could be sites of physical and epistemic violence and simultaneously be spaces for community and resistance. It does not merely seek to recapitulate the gaze of the nineteenth-century state by condensing Bellevue’s data into summary statistics. Rather, it complicates histories of New York public health which have tended to laud philanthropically-minded doctors and administrators, or emphasize the institutional logics of Bellevue.7 Without discounting these institutional histories, this essay calls for a greater focus on the ways in which immigrants experienced historical enactments of power through data production. It also demonstrates the ways in which that same data can reveal challenges to that power.8

New York City collected reams of data about immigrants in the nineteenth century, as part of a broader, trans-Atlantic quantification movement. Merchants assigned costs to commodities. Census-takers enumerated families. Slave traders measured and evaluated enslaved people. Federal and state governments aggregated paupers. Epidemiologists mapped disease. This enumeration, evaluation, aggregation and mapping explicitly valued some characteristics and devalued others. It constituted an intellectual framework that worked to differentiate “the national ‘us’ from aliens within and without.” In doing so, it helped to establish the “natural parameters” and features of what Mary Poovey called “the social body.”9

For historians, this glut of information is attractive for its abundance. It is visualizable, and regressable. It is also fraught with peril. Nineteenth-century immigration data was produced with the express purpose of reducing people to bodies; bodies to easily quantifiable aspects; and assigning value to those aspects which proved that the marginalized people to who they belonged were worth less than their elite counterparts. The uses to which this data collection was put meant that the act of quantification itself had the potential to enact both epistemic and physical violence on the subjects it nominally preserved. In reducing people to merely a set of characteristics, immigration officials rendered them archivally mute. These men and women do not speak for themselves in immigration records; the city alone speaks for, and values them.10 More specifically, in reducing people to characteristics associated with immigration status, Bellevue administrators framed any ailments or difficulties inmates might have had as a consequence of that status. Additionally, the admission of these men and women into Bellevue subjected them to the physical violence that characterized public health institutions.11 This reading of potential violence in quantification is not merely an artifact of twenty-first century theory. It was also visible to contemporaries. Friedrich Kapp, one of New York State’s first Commissioners of Emigration, described the zeitgeist of nineteenth-century New York as one in which “the emigrant is not a subject, but an object…a numerical quantity; they seem to have no individual existence, and the student of contemporary history does not take the trouble to study their individual motives, misfortunes and aspirations.”12

This tension between “individual motives, misfortunes and aspirations” of immigrants and their quantification was made manifest in the differences between immigrants’ experiences of the Atlantic crossing and New York city’s experience of immigrants. The “Famine ships” that crossed from Ireland to the United States were rife with typhus, cholera, sick bodies, effluvia and purification. Those immigrants who did not personally experience “a reeling to the head, followed by a swelling pain, as if the head were going to burst” or “excruciating pains in the bones, and then a swelling of the limbs,” would have seen their friends, family, and strangers with whom they shared close quarters suffer.13 Many died. Many bodies were thrown overboard.14 When those who survived the journey entered New York harbor, many were weak from hunger and as a consequence of illness. Some were likely still contagious. Their ordeal was over, but they were in need of support.

New York City officials experienced immigrants as potential liabilities, and produced data about them accordingly. Ships arriving in New York stopped at the Marine Hospital on Staten Island, but unless the passengers were visibly ill, they were allowed to continue on into the port.15 In the early nineteenth century, to mitigate the costs of supporting sick or indigent immigrants, New York State passed laws requiring the master or captain of every foreign ship to commit funds or take out bonds for each passenger. As part of this process, captains had to collect identifying information about immigrants, so that if they became ill and turned to public institutions for aid, the city could charge whoever was financially responsible.16 Middlemen got involved. Brokers, bondsmen and runners scrambled to sell bonds to vessel-owners.17 If the immigrants that they had bonded remained healthy (or avoided entering public institutions) the bondsmen kept the full bonding fee—anywhere between ten cents and one dollar per passenger. If the immigrants became sick and turned to the city, bondsmen were obligated to cover the cost of their care. These bondsmen effectively bet that immigrants would not become ill. Immigrants—or more particularly sick immigrants—became commodities to be wagered on, bought and sold.

After they spent nearly three weeks in New York City without leaving a mark on the historical record, the Burnes family surfaced again archivally on March 12th, when Eliza-Jane and Ellen were “sent” to the city’s public Almshouse at Bellevue.18 James and Arthur do not appear again. It is impossible to know how voluntary Eliza-Jane and Ellen’s incarceration was. The Almshouse admissions ledgers only note “by whom” they were “sent,” two city officials named George W. Anderson and Peter C. Johnston. However, Eliza-Jane and Ellen would not have entered Bellevue without work by city officials, who were able to exert considerable power over newly-arrived immigrants.

George W. Anderson was the Superintendent of Out-Door Poor. He was tasked with adjudicating the needs of the city’s destitute, determining whether they could receive aid outside of an institution (“Out-Door”) or whether they should be admitted to Bellevue. Impoverished New Yorkers could approach Anderson, “either personally or through some friend,” and ask “to be committed.” They would stay in city institutions “long enough to recover from their diseases, if sick, and to earn sufficient to pay all the expenses of their support.”19 It is possible that in the weeks between disembarking and entering Bellevue, Eliza-Jane learned of, and then enthusiastically took advantage of this public health infrastructure.

However, it is far more likely that she would have been urged or ordered to enter Bellevue. In the first half of the nineteenth century, city officials began to encourage incarceration and rehabilitation of the poor, because institutionalization meant providing relief in exchange for labor—a far cheaper prospect than providing out-door relief.20 During the week she spent in New York before entering Bellevue, Eliza-Jane might have encountered an agent of the city or a well-meaning New Yorker who told her that if she wanted food for herself and Ellen, she was obligated to enter the Almshouse. She might have connected their recommendations with Irish workhouses, which required strenuous work as a condition of entry, and which were notoriously spare in their accommodations.21 This “workhouse test” meant that entering an institution was a last resort. If she drew connections between Bellevue and Irish institutions, her decision to enter Bellevue may have been less a deliberate choice than it was her only remaining option.

It is also possible that Eliza-Jane might also have been explicitly and forcibly institutionalized. In the 1840s, police officers were tasked with corralling those “in the street” who seemed “intoxicated [or] diseased.” They were also on the lookout for those who were “houseless.” These “vagrants and criminals”—which included people who did not have permanent accommodations, and which might have included Eliza-Jane and Ellen—were committed to the penitentiary, the workhouse, or the almshouse.22 Whether Eliza-Jane petitioned for admission, was encouraged or coerced by some well-meaning city official, or was compelled to enter Bellevue, her admittance into the public health system signaled New York city’s growing control over her and her daughter.

That control was next made manifest in their quantification in Bellevue. Upon entry, clerks recorded information—name, age, profession, nationality—but also the names of the people who had referred them to Bellevue, and, most importantly for New York City, the ship or broker that was obligated to cover the new inmate’s fees. Thereafter, a clerk—possibly Peter C. Johnston—designated the “disease” which had occasioned their admission to Bellevue. Some were diagnosed with medically recognizable illnesses, including “fever,” “dropsy” and “neuralgia.” Others were diagnosed with “diseases” that made visible the ways in which immigrants were failing to meet the expectations of urban citizenship. These included “destitution” and “recent emigrant.”23 Neither of these diagnoses reflected an immigrant’s health. Nevertheless, they were treated as pathologies, and those pathologies governed city officials perceptions of immigrants. Sickness, injuries or destitution were subsumed under the pathology of “recent emigrant.” This diagnosis also determined immigrants’ paths through the New York City public health system.24

No archival records remain that describe the clerks’ logic in diagnosing some immigrants as “destitute,” others as suffering from a generalized “sickness,” and still others as “recent emigrant.” No manuals remain dictating policies that sent some of these men and women to work camps on the East River islands and others to shantytowns on the hospital grounds. There are few sources in immigrants’ own words that can give a sense of these men and women’s experience navigating these processes.25 Others recapitulate on the reports of Bellevue administrators or city officials to describe the intervening days or weeks.26 The voices of immigrants are absent.

Figure 1. Pathways through the Bellevue Almshouse. Each line represents an inmate who encountered admittors, was diagnosed, and was sent to one of various sites within New York City’s public health system. Color coding the pathways by gender, age, first admittor, second admittor, diagnosis, public health site and specific institutions reveals some of the hidden logics of the almshouse.

The Digital Almshouse Project does not give access to immigrant voices, but it does help to make visible the forces working on immigrants, and reveals possible sites of resistance to those forces. The Almshouse dataset includes the information that Bellevue administrators collected about nine thousand Irish-born inmates.27 This dataset is a transcription of the admissions ledgers for Bellevue, cross-referenced with ship-logs from the port of New York in the 1840s.28 The database includes information intrinsic to individual inmates (age, name, gender and profession), information about their arrival in New York (date of arrival and ship), encounters with city officials (each inmate was usually “sent by” two people) and processing in Bellevue (disease, and the public health site that inmates were ultimately sent to). Each set of variables signified one stage in immigrants’ passage through the public health system.29

Being diagnosed as “recent emigrant,” was significantly predicted by who sent an immigrant to Bellevue.30 Two officials in particular, Moses G. Leonard (the Commissioner of the Almshouse) and George W. Anderson (the Superintendent of Out Door Poor), were significant in predicting whether the person they were sending to the hospital would have been diagnosed as a recent emigrant.31 Other diagnoses that would seem to do similar work of signaling the unsuitability of an immigrant for public spaces in New York—like destitution—were not strongly associated with any particular official. An immigrant in New York City who encountered these men was more likely than others to be diagnosed as a “recent emigrant,” and subsequently sent to the Bellevue garrets.

The fact that two city officials were more likely than others to send immigrants to Bellevue who would later be diagnosed as “recent emigrant” suggests that the personal opinions of these men might have been a significant factor in how inmates were understood by Bellevue staff. It is impossible to know if the men and women who encountered George W. Anderson and M.G. Leonard shared characteristics that are obscured by the archive. But we do know that the New York official they encountered seems to have changed their status in the eyes of the institution. We can imagine that this information might have circulated within the Irish immigrant community. These correlations do little to access the humanity of immigrants, or the moments of precarity or contingency that shaped their lives in the United States. However, they do tell us something about the archivally invisible forces that acted on Irish immigrants who were sent to Bellevue in the 1840s.32

After they were diagnosed, these inmates were billeted. Some were sent to the Almshouse hospital. Others were sent to the workhouse on Blackwell’s Island. Some stayed in Bellevue’s Almshouse. Still more ended up in temporary accommodations in the “garrets and cellars” and in the newly-built morgue. Moses G. Leonard, the commissioner of the Almshouse, wrote in 1846 that “the chapel also has been converted into sleeping apartments and shanties built for their more comfortable accommodations.”33 These were marginal spaces intended simply for the confinement of (mostly immigrant) bodies.

No archives remain to tell us how Eliza-Jane and Ellen, or the thousands of other Irish immigrants who were incarcerated in New York’s public institutions, felt about their new surroundings.34 On the one hand, their presence in Bellevue was evidence that in the short term at least, New York officials were able to control their physical circumstances in exchange for relief. The production of data about them meant that any ailments that they might experience were filtered through a set of assumptions about their status as immigrants. Their incarceration also meant that they were potentially subject to physical violence at the hands of Bellevue administrators.

On the other hand, despite their classification and incarceration, Ellen and Eliza-Jane likely would have found a community in Bellevue. In these shanties with Eliza-Jane and Ellen were other “recent emigrant” families. They might have met the Crawford family, all of whom arrived on the ship Glenore from Belfast in early February, and who had also been sent to Bellevue by Anderson and Johnston. They might also have encountered Catherine Lynch, a nineteen year old “spinster” who had arrived alone in early April.

Other potential communities emerge from the Almshouse dataset. Over half of the inmates diagnosed as “recent emigrant” were sent to the Bellevue Hospital—likely because, according to one Bellevue official, the entire Bellevue complex “was constantly filled with paupers,” and even the hospital had to accommodate new inmates.35 Over one tenth were sent to the Bellevue Garret and over one tenth to Blackwell’s Island. Fewer than one percent were sent to the Bellevue Almshouse. However, when both site of incarceration and the city officials who dispatched the immigrant were taken into account, being sent to the Bellevue Garrets was more significantly associated with the pathologization of immigrant status. This was a space of overflow, which connoted no particular form of treatment, but merely the holding of people who were unable—either for reasons of debility or anti-immigrant bias—to live in New York city.36

Eliza-Jane and Ellen shared with these people a set of paradoxical conditions: they were not unwell enough to be diagnosed with a medically specific illness but not well enough to survive New York without aid; they were in sufficient need to require city assistance, but also at risk of (in the words of a cautioning commissioner of the Almshouse) “liv[ing] in idleness, furnishing no return for their support.”37 For the city—and possibly for the immigrants themselves—incarceration in Bellevue seemed the only, but a nevertheless imperfect, solution.

A story of community, of similar experiences at the hands of possibly hostile city officials is not one that the Almshouse data easily affords. It is, however, a narrative that is possible to tell by reading these sources against the grain, uncovering the forces which seemed to push immigrants through the public health system, and searching for spaces where resistance to those forces might have been possible. This kind of work makes it possible to tell the stories of immigrant as they first arrived in New York, and to begin to fill in the gaps in an historical narrative which often casts these men and women as unfortunate subjects of xenophobia, religious intolerance and state control.


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Notes

The author would like to thank Marion Casey, Kalani Craig, Jessica Marie Johnson, Michelle Moravec, Lincoln Mullen, Stephen Robertson and Scott Weingart for their support and comments on early iterations of this paper, as well as Tyler Anbinder and participants in the 2018 Current Research in Digital History for their comments and suggestions.

  1. Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies. Center for Immigration Research. “Records for Passengers Who Arrived at the Port of New York During the Irish Famine, Created, 1977 - 1989, Documenting the Period 1/12/1846 - 12/31/1851.” 

  2. Kinealy, This Great Calamity

  3. Kinealy, Charity and the Great Hunger in Ireland

  4. For an overview of the famine, famine immigration, see Miller, Emigrants and Exiles. For quantitative analyses of Irish migration patterns, see Ó Gráda, “A Note on Nineteenth-Century Irish Emigration Statistics”; Mokyr, Why Ireland Starved; Diner, Erin’s Daughters in America. For a discussion of immigrants’ experiences more broadly, see Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York City; Binder and Reimers, All the Nations Under Heaven

  5. Some work has recreated immigrants’ experiences in New York City. Anbinder, Five Points

  6. In May of 1847, the Commissioners of Emigration for the State of New York were established. This body was tasked with protecting incoming immigrants, and was empowered to administer piers were incoming immigrants would have to land and be assessed, license reputable boarding houses, and supervise ticket agents. The rise of the Commissioners of Emigration effectively ended Irish immigrants’ use of Bellevue as a public health space. However, early famine immigrants were not subject to these regulations, and between 1845 and 1847, the city was not infrastructurally prepared to deal with them. For an overview of the development of immigration law, see Purcell, “The New York Commissioners of Emigration and Irish Immigrants”; Hirota, Expelling the Poor, chapter 2. 

  7. For example, see the recent histories of Bellevue and of the role of Almshouses in the development of American immigrant policy. Oshinsky, Bellevue; Hirota, Expelling the Poor

  8. Stephen Robertson described this approach as one which makes “products” (the Almshouse admissions records) visible as “process.” 

  9. Poovey, “Curing the ‘Social Body’ in 1832,” 196. 

  10. Derrida, Archive Fever; Carter, “Of Things Said and Unsaid.” 

  11. Four decades after the Irish famine, Nellie Bly would famously describe “choking and beating” patients in the Blackwell’s Island insane asylum. Bly, Ten Days in a Mad-House

  12. Kapp, Immigration, 42. 

  13. Whyte, Ocean Plague, 44. 

  14. Whyte, 51. 

  15. Hirota, Expelling the Poor, 47. 

  16. Klebaner, “State and Local Immigration Regulation,” 274. 

  17. O’Malley, “Lickspittles and Land Sharks.” 

  18. The terms in quotation marks reflect the language used in the Bellevue Almshouse admission records. The designation “recent emigrant” was recorded in a column labeled “disease.” 

  19. New York (N.Y.). Commissioners of the Alms-House, Bridewell, and Penitentiary, Annual Report, 5–6. 

  20. Rothman, The Discovery of the Asylum, 194. 

  21. For a review of the competing ideologies of Irish workhouses, see Gray, The Making of the Irish Poor Law; Gray, “Irish Social Thought and the Relief of Poverty.” 

  22. New York (N.Y.). Commissioners of the Alms-House, Bridewell, and Penitentiary, Annual Report, 4. Officially, those in legitimate need were required to petition for admission while those who were criminals or burdens on the city could be forcibly incarcerated. It is unlikely, however, that in practice the line between vagrant and deserving poor was always clear. For a discussion of the antebellum intersection of ideas about race, poverty and crime, see SenGupta, From Slavery to Poverty

  23. For a complete list of the possible diagnoses and (when possible) their contemporary equivalent, see the medical terms appendix. 

  24. For a discussion of anti-Irish sentiment, see Kenny, “Race, Violence and Anti-Irish Sentiment in the Nineteenth Century.” For a visualization of the different factors that contributed to immigrants’ paths through this system, see http://shroutdocs.org/research/bellevue/bellevue_pathways/bellevue_almshouse.html

  25. Binder and Reimers, All the Nations under Heaven, 45. 

  26. Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York City, 37. 

  27. “Digital Almshouse Project.” 

  28. “Admission Records, The Almshouse Department”; Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies. Center for Immigration Research., “Records for Passengers Who Arrived at the Port of New York During the Irish Famine, Created, 1977 - 1989, Documenting the Period 1/12/1846 - 12/31/1851.” 

  29. R script repository: https://github.com/shrouta/bellevue_R_script 

  30. This finding, and the ones that follow are based on logistic regression, modeled on dummy variables created for disease, sent_to, and by_whom_sent. Chatterjee and Hadi, “Logistic Regression.” 

  31. The relation was tested with a logistic regression. The coefficient for Moses Leonard was 2.91724, the standard error was .11985, the significance was < 2e-16. The coefficient for the George W. Anderson was 2.63644, the standard error was .12535, the significance was < 2e-16. For full details see https://github.com/shrouta/bellevue_R_script/blob/master/recent_emigrant_logistic_output.txt

  32. For a visualization of these forces, see http://www.nyuirish.net/almshouse/data-pathways/

  33. Board of Assistant Aldermen, Proceedings and Documents of the Board of Assistant Aldermen, from Dec. 7th 1846 to May 10th, 1847., XXIX:373. 

  34. For a discussion of the historical relationship between asylums, almshouses, institutionalization, incarceration and the long history of the carceral state, see Rothman, The Discovery of the Asylum; Foucault, Discipline and Punish; Harcourt, “From the Asylum to the Prison.” 

  35. Klips, “Institutionalizing the Poor,” 276. 

  36. The relation was tested with a logistic regression. The coefficient for garret was 1.34441, the standard error was 0.23120, the significance was 6.16e-09. https://github.com/shrouta/bellevue_R_script/blob/master/recent_emigrant_logistic_output.txt

  37. Board of Assistant Aldermen, Proceedings and Documents of the Board of Assistant Aldermen, from Dec. 7th 1846 to May 10th, 1847., XXIX:373. 


Appendices


Author

Anelise Hanson Shrout, Digital and Computational Studies, Bates College, ashrout@bates.edu, ORC ID logo0000-0001-6277-0607